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Why Do Internet Nazis Think ’80s Cult Classic They Live Is an Anti-Jewish Conspiracy?

Roddy Piper

Last night, acclaimed horror director John Carpenter tweeted out a clarification of his 1988 cult classic They Live that it’s hard to imagine anyone needed to hear:

Apparently in our horrifying new political landscape composed primarily of Twitter eggs, Pepe memes, and screeching noises, an intentionally campy ’80s horror satire starring wrestler “Rowdy” Roddy Piper has become fodder for the neo-Nazi grist mill.

First, if you’ve never had the good fortune of watching They Live: Piper is just an average guy, until he stumbles across a band of rebels fighting an alien species that’s infiltrated human society and tricked unsuspecting millions into mindless consumerism. The rebels wear sunglasses that expose the aliens’ gruesome faces and the true nature of their message to humanity. Glasses off: A billboard advertising capitalist splendors. Glasses on: A grim propaganda poster commanding its subjects to “OBEY.” (They Live inspired Shepard Fairey’s streetwear brand.)

The only option is to don sunglasses and join the fight, leading to They Live‘s single most memorable and meme-able line, which is about chewing bubblegum:

Who in 2017 is putting on magic sunglasses and seeing Triumph of the Will in this ’80s horror movie? Basically the same people who ascribe life-altering significance to the red pill Neo swallows in The Matrix. (Being “red pilled” has long been internet shorthand for “waking up” to the “reality” that reality is a lie and women everywhere have conspired never to sleep with you.) Along the bullshit chute of the alt-right, strident misogyny slides straight into full-on white supremacy, and Carpenter’s mentions are full of Twitter users ready and willing to see Jewish stereotypes in his film:

They Live has long attracted questionable alternative readings from people like Holocaust denier Michael A. Hoffman (who believes the leaders of the New World Order are intentionally revealing themselves via action movies) and conservative radio host and “internationally recognized prophecy expert” Paul McGuire (who connects the film to Nazis and “vibrational energy”). As Gizmodo points out, Stormfront posters were raving about the supposed anti-Semitism in They Live way back in 2008. More recently, semi-anonymous YouTube conspiracists are posting clips with titles like “THEY LIVE IS ABOUT THE JEWS 100% PROOF.” The creator of that clip is particularly fixated on the fact that two key scenes in They Live take place in a bank (where Piper delivers the bubblegum line) and at a television station—because this, to the online neo-Nazi, represents “proof” of Jewish control of finance and media.

Of course, no alien bent on world domination could neglect to notice the structural importance of banking and advertising. But when Hollywood introduces a simplistic metaphor (pill, sunglasses) to intended represent insight, bug-eyed, bigoted whackadoodles only see proof of the thing they already believed anyway.

It certainly can’t hurt that They Live‘s primary plot device—scary shapeshifting aliens—bears more than a passing resemblance to reptilians, the aliens-control-Earth theory pushed by prominent anti-Semitic conspiracist David Icke since the early 1990s. Conspiracy theories urge believers to see meaning everywhere, to force out patterns where none exist. If you’ve already been primed to believe that Jews and/or reptiles control all, seeing They Live as a celebration of the fascism of the common man isn’t such a leap after all.